Transportation Policy Academy Pt. 7: Eno Transportation Foundation’s Joshua Schank

In October 2011, CSG hosted an invitation-only Transportation Policy Academy in Washington, D.C. for a group of 11 state legislators from around the country, many of whom serve in leadership positions on transportation-focused committees in their states. In addition to providing an opportunity for these state leaders to meet with their members of Congress about the future of transportation policy, CSG also invited a group of policy experts, public officials, advocates and observers to speak to the group about the policy landscape, what may lie ahead for states in transportation and what some states are doing in the absence of federal action. In the interest of sharing their insights and expertise with a broader CSG audience, this series of blog posts will feature extended excerpts from their remarks on a wide variety of transportation policy issues. Joshua Schank is President and CEO of the Eno Transportation Foundation, a non-profit foundation with the mission of improving transportation policy and leadership. During his remarks to policy academy participants, he discussed the legacy of 2005’s SAFETEA-LU legislation authorizing federal surface transportation programs, the need for a new focus and reasons for optimism about the current debate over a SAFETEA-LU successor.

Schank, who is an urban planner, has worked on federal and state transportation policy for over a decade. Before joining Eno, he directed the National Transportation Policy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, which proposed a new vision for the Federal role in surface transportation policy. Dr. Schank was Transportation Policy Advisor to Senator Hillary Clinton during the development of the last surface transportation authorization bill (SAFETEA-LU). He is the co-author of All Roads Lead to Congress: The $300 Billion Fight Over Highway Funding.

Here are some excerpts from his remarks:

Legacy of SAFETEA-LU

Schank: “The surface transportation bill—and in particular SAFETEA-LU—was built on the idea that we collect a huge pot of money and then everyone divides it up and everyone gets paid and everyone goes home to their constituents and says ‘look what I brought home for you.’ That was the paradigm that essentially created the last three big … reauthorization bills … That paradigm ended with SAFETEA-LU because SAFETEA-LU was known for the bridge to nowhere … It was a big fight over donor/donee and how much my state’s getting in return for the gas tax revenues. And there was almost no discussion about policy or purpose or what we were trying to achieve with this legislation … As a result of that, in part, the House and Senate flipped to Democratic control in 2006.”

“Right now the reason everyone’s feeling pessimistic is that no one’s figured out what the new paradigm is … The Congress had a paradigm before ISTEA and that was based on ‘let’s build the Interstate system’ and that worked and that made sense. And people were willing to make political compromises for that. And then the new paradigm of everyone get paid as VMT increases and as the gas tax revenues keep increasing and we all just divide up the money—well, that worked for awhile. But that was a purely political paradigm and not focused on outcomes, not focused on what we were trying to achieve.”

“The fortunate thing about SAFETEA-LU was that it created the necessity to develop a purpose for this program. And it said, we can’t continue doing it this way. The American public isn’t going to accept it. Even before there was any issue about raising the gas tax, which was an issue during SAFETEA-LU, I might remind you, and Congress intentionally spent down the balance of the trust fund beyond what they knew they were going to take in. So the problem was there last time. It’s just that last time, they were able to overcome that problem because everyone got their earmarks and everyone got their rate of return.”

Lack of a Clear Purpose to Federal Program

Schank: “And as usual for most things that Congress does, Congress has recognized that problem and has attacked the symptoms of the problem rather than the underlying cause. What’s the symptom of that problem? The symptom of that problem was that there were 5,000 some odd earmarks in the last bill and that was seen as a real political issue. But the earmarks weren’t the problem. The earmarks were a symptom of the problem, which is that there was no clear purpose to this other than dividing up a big pot of money. Now we’ve said ‘okay, there’s no more earmarks’ and instead of that being helpful, that’s actually a hindrance because by saying ‘no more earmarks,’ we’re attacking the symptom without dealing with the underlying issue of defining the purpose of the program.”

“The bottom line on the motivations for transportation investment is … that at the state and local level it’s much easier to go and say ‘we want you to pay more because you’re going to get x, y and z projects. And at the federal level, it’s very hard to convince the American public that they should be paying more for a federal transportation investment because it’s very hard to define what that is. When there was an Interstate system, it was easier to define—when that was what we were building with the money. But now, what is it that people are getting in return for this money? It’s not specific projects if we’re getting rid of earmarks. And it certainly should not be 95 percent return on my gas tax revenues. That doesn’t make any sense. So defining exactly what it is is essential to the motivation for getting a new paradigm in place that makes transportation at the federal level a possibility.”

3 Reasons for Optimism About the Process

1. The discussion has begun on the purpose of the program.

Schank: “There is a discussion about what the purpose of this program is. It’s a bad one because discussing whether transportation enhancements should be part of the program is again attacking the symptom rather than the larger issue. [Editor’s note: Some members of Congress have sought to eliminate funding for federal transportation enhancement activities. These include pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and safety, scenic and historic highways, landscaping and scenic beautification, historic preservation, and environmental mitigation.] Transportation enhancements are arguably not a clear, national interest that we should be focusing on. Fine, but that’s not … going to solve the fiscal issue. And there are 108 different federal programs as part of the surface transportation program, many of which don’t have a clear federal purpose. So just starting with ‘well, I don’t like this one,” is not a productive conversation.”

“We might start with what are we trying to achieve with these programs and then go through and look at all the programs and say ‘okay, which ones of these are actually achieving what we’re trying to achieve.’ That would be the rational way to go about it. But of course that’s not what’s happening. But at least it’s a start because it’s forcing us to analyze the existing program. We’ve never had to do that before … We’ve never had to sit there and say ‘well, what is the point of this program?’ And the enhancements discussion is a terrible way to go about it but it’s a start in the sense that everyone’s going to have to ask that question. Not just (Senator) Tom Coburn and not just the fiscal hawks. Everyone is going to have to confront ‘well, maybe my thing that I care about in this bill isn’t in the national purpose’ and what is it that we’re really trying to achieve. Because there’s going to be less money and because no one is going to let a bill go through with 5,000 earmarks again.”     

2. There is a reconsideration of how we fund this program at a fundamental level.

Schank: “In the long term, the gas tax is not sustainable. On the other hand, we could raise the gas tax tomorrow and fund this program very effectively for a long time. So it’s not that it has to be addressed immediately in theory. But in reality, we’re not raising the gas tax and in reality, if we want to have a federal transportation program, how we’re going to fund that program. And reconsidering how we fund it is actually a really good idea because the user fee model was predicated on the Interstate system and having a clear purpose in what we were trying to achieve through Interstate construction.”

“Most industrialized nations do not have a user pays model for their transportation systems and perhaps this is why … (The user pays model) engenders fighting over how much I paid and how much I get and fighting over how the pie is cut up. It does not engender wise investments based on national purposes. That’s pretty clear. So the reconsidering of how we fund this program long-term is really important and that is incredibly connected to what we achieve with the program.”

“We could just go along and reauthorize and increase the gas tax and I’m sure that would satisfy a lot of people in this room. I wouldn’t be satisfied by that because if you just had a gas tax increase, you wouldn’t be forced to confront the underlying problem which is that the gas tax model and the trust fund model create divisions between states. They create divisions between modes. And they make it hard for us to address national purposes based on return on investment, which is what we should be doing.”

3. It’s possible to raise revenue for transportation if people know what they’re getting.

Schank: “It has been demonstrated. And not just based on specific projects, although I think that’s the easiest way to do it. The biggest example is Washington State, where a gas tax increase was achieved primarily through the use of a book they put out called “The Gray Book” (see here) that explained how those investments were going to increase accountability for a bunch of different performance measures … I’m optimistic because there’s a model for how we do this. And yes, it’s harder to do at the federal level and harder to do in this political environment but it is possible. And it is possible if we have a smart discussion about what the national purpose is. And it’s possible if we really reconsider how we’re funding this program. If we do all those things—which we are somewhat being forced to do—then there is hope that this program can be funded adequately and directed towards clear national purposes.”

National Goals, Performance Measures More Important Than Any Bill

Schank: “If you care about this program and if this is something you want to make a difference in, I would focus less on whether we get a two-year-bill or a six-year-bill. I think it’s highly unlikely we’ll get anything in this Congress. But whatever, I think it’s less focus on a bill and more focus on defining a purpose and defining the national goals and trying to figure out what is we’re trying to achieve. And that can be done through legislation, by the way. You can do that by saying ‘look, we’re going to extend this program two years’ but as part of the extension, we’re going to define what we want to achieve with this program in the future. Here’s how we’re going to measure or at least start to figure out how we’re going to measure this program in the future. Getting national goals and performance measures established is more important than getting a bill. And it can be done whether you have an extension, whether you have a two-year-bill, whether you have a six-year-bill, it can be done. And I would recommend that that’s where we should be focusing our efforts.”